Responding with Receptivity

Welcoming the Surprising Visit of the Magi

Responding with Receptivity

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After Joseph learned of the mystery of Mary’s pregnancy and took her as his wife, Matthew shows us Jesus already born in Bethlehem and the Magi on pilgrimage from the East. The family resides in a house by now.

One day, to their surprise, camels show up at their door. Traders from the other side of the Jordan, offering their wares? No, turbaned men who say they have come to honor the newborn king of the Jews. No poor shepherds these, offering palm-sized gifts of goat cheese. The Magi bring frankincense, myrrh, and gold.

How did they know of the birth? Unlike the shepherds who had learned from heavenly messengers, these strangers read the message in the heavens themselves, the stars. And they had passed through Jerusalem and asked King Herod where the newborn king was to be found. This detail must have sent a chill through Mary’s heart. This is no longer Simeon hailing the Savior or Anna telling temple visitors about the child. The Magi’s well-intentioned query means news has reached royal headquarters—and that might mean trouble. The Holy Spirit continues to hover over Mary’s pondering. She begins to realize in a new way that Jesus is not meant for mere Christmas-card sweetness. He has already become a public and, in Herod’s mind, a political figure.

How did the Holy Spirit teach Mary about handling fear? In the Scriptures, whenever a heavenly messenger appears with a revelation to someone, the messenger always begins with this reassurance: “Don’t be afraid” (Genesis 15:1; Joshua 8:1; Judges 6:23; Luke 1:30). But this was no heavenly messenger. It was a threat from the cruel and unpredictable Herod. Could Mary still hear the words of Gabriel: “Don’t be afraid, Mary” (Luke 1:30)? Is it possible for fear and trust to exist at the same time in a holy human heart? Were they both in Jesus’ heart in Gethsemane? It seems so. I suspect that the Holy Spirit brought peace to Mary’s heart when he enabled her to surrender once more. She was able to whisper to herself, “Whatever, let it be done,” and in doing so, she was able to be totally present to her guests.

Significant in this story is Matthew’s detail, “They saw the child with Mary his mother” (Matthew 2:11, NAB). Why doesn’t Matthew mention Joseph too, since he has such a prominent role in these first two chapters? It can only be because the Evangelist wants to suggest the further fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that the virgin would give birth to the Emmanuel king (1:23) while ignoring the father of this king, Ahaz (Isaiah 7:14). What did all this mean to Mary, bride of the Holy Spirit? If Jesus is King, she is the Queen Mother. She already knew this from the angel of the annunciation. But how is she to fulfill this role? For the time being, just in being a mother—and in this scene, that means welcoming the Magi and receiving their gifts with gratitude.

Hospitality was the law of the Middle East. Warmed and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, hospitality becomes a charism manifesting the presence of God (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). We can imagine Mary and Joseph scurrying to ready a meal and a place for the tired travelers to rest. But their greatest act of hospitality was not in their preparations. It was simply in their accepting the Magi’s gifts.

Serving by Receiving

Receptivity: It looks like the opposite of service. But when one receives a gift, one receives the giver, and the greatest service one can do for the giver is to receive his gift. That is Luke’s point in the Martha and Mary story (Luke 10:38-42). While Martha is busy preparing a meal for Jesus, Mary does Jesus the greater service by welcoming his word into her receiving heart.

Mary and Joseph here model the Holy Spirit’s gift of receptivity for the rest of us. They receive the precious tokens of the strangers’ devotion. And Mary receives the makers of a pilgrimage, the first of thousands to come.

It has taken me a long time to learn the gift of receiving. Of course, as a child I was told repeatedly to say, “Thank you,” but to me at that age, the gift was more important than the love of the giver. I would run and play with the toy, oblivious of the giver. Later, as I grew older, when I gave gifts, I expected some kind of return—maybe not at once but eventually. I know lots of people who feel obliged to give a gift, as if they were paying the price for the relationship. It’s Christmas, and Aunt Suzie will be expecting her gift and will be upset if she doesn’t get it. If I receive a gift, am I expected to reciprocate? If so, this is barter, nothing more than an exchange of goods. If someone gives me a painting, will they be offended if I give it away, even after having kept it for a long time? And what about invitations? Am I offended if I am not invited? How easily gifts degenerate into payments.

I need to remind myself repeatedly that a true gift has no strings attached, whether I give it or receive it. The Magi expected nothing in return. In the story they disappeared just as freely as they came. Nor did Mary feel obligated by their gifts. If she gave them anything, it was not “in return.” It was with full freedom and love and not to reduce the exchange to barter.

Holy Spirit, take my heart and teach it the grace of welcome and receptivity—to you, to Jesus, to the Father, in all the ways you come to me. But with Mary, also teach me how to be truly receptive to others, to receive not merely their gifts but their persons, to let them love me without feeling that I have to do anything more than see, accept, and welcome the love they show me in the gift. Amen.

For Reflection

1. The news that Herod had learned of the “newborn king” sent fear into Mary’s heart. How do you think she handled this fear? How do you handle your fears?

2. When confronted with unexpected and troubling news, are you able to bracket your feelings for the moment in order to be present to the persons you are attending to? How would reflecting on Mary’s situation help?

3. How do you handle gift giving and receiving? Do you get caught up in the barter mentality, obliging you to reciprocate when you receive a gift or to expect gifts in return for your gifts? Pray that you may have the grace, like Mary, to give freely and receive freely.

This article is excerpted from Mary’s Life in the Spirit: Meditations on a Holy Duet by George T. Montague, SM (The Word Among Us Press, 2011). Available at